No, parliament should not move out of London while they rebuild the Palace of Westminster

Falling down: the Palace of Westminster. Image: Getty.

Finally, MPs have bitten the bullet and voted to move out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster while the dilapidated building is restored. And almost as soon as the vote was passed, the inevitable calls for parliament to relocate out of London kicked off again.

Serious thinkers have thrown their weight behind the campaign in publications including the Guardian and Economist, arguing that moving MPs and Lords to another city, or even cities, while the Palace is rebuilt would reconnect our despised politicians with the people.

But it’s a nonsensical – and cripplingly expensive – idea.

First and foremost, parliament is not just 650 MPs and 800-odd peers. It’s their thousands of staffers, and tens of thousands of civil servants up and down Whitehall and across Westminster.

For a government to function well, backbenchers, ministers, and civil servants need to work together – not just via email, but in actual physical contact in meetings. Moving the legislative part of our constitution hundreds of miles away from the executive branch would be the equivalent of hurling an entire shed full of spanners into the complicated workings of government, and paying hundreds of millions for the privilege of gumming up the system.

Don’t just take it from me. A 2013 EU study of the only parliament mad enough to actually shift from city to city (its own) found that moving MEPs between Brussels and Strasbourg cost at least €103m a year.

And it’s not just civil servants who would be cut off from the MPs they’re supposed to work with. Businesses, the City, charities, lobbyists, regulators and more who are all based in and around central London would face endless train journeys up and down Britain.

Like it or not, London isn’t just the legislative capital of Britain: it’s also its political, cultural and economic capital. Pretty much anyone and any organisation which wants anything to do with government, policy and politics has set itself up in London – and they’re certainly not going to relocate to Hull or wherever for six years just because MPs feel guilty about spending billions rebuilding the palace they normally work in.

Not only would there be vast, unnecessary costs and inefficiencies in making civil servants, lobbyists, and businesses commute to and from a relocated parliament, there’s also the problem of getting parliament to and from everywhere else.

London is the hub of the UK rail network and has better access to the rest of the UK than anywhere else. For instance, it’s quicker to get to, say, Wrexham, from London by train than it is from Sheffield, even though the latter city – sometimes touted as a possible host for parliament – is 100 miles closer.


And that’s assuming we could even settle on Sheffield, or any other city, as the new home of parliament. The bitter squabble over who would reap the benefits of hosting MPs and peers for six years would itself take years and cost millions. There is no consensus over what the UK’s second city is, with the second largest by population, Birmingham, lagging behind places like Manchester when it comes to local government powers and economic dynamism. And then there are the other capitals, in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast: should they not be front of the queue instead?

Even if we did somehow manage to coalesce around a single candidate without embittering half of Britain or triggering a series of lengthy judicial reviews, finding a suitably large and yet secure building would also be a massive challenge.

When looked at dispassionately, the choice of to stay inside the Westminster security cordon – a stone’s throw from Whitehall, a short walk from the rest of the UK’s leading businesses and cultural hubs, and with the fastest and best access to the rest of the country by train – Is the obvious one.

Yes, we all want to rebalance the UK’s economy and boost the neglected cities that have not seen the success that London has. But, sadly, the ship has sailed when it comes to toppling London’s supremacy, or even challenging it, as Los Angeles or Washington can to New York’s.

We can and should relocate offices and parts of the national infrastructure outside London, like the DVLA in Swansea or BBC Sport in Salford. But parliament, and everything else in its orbit, is not something that can be parcelled out to the rest of the country like some runners-up prize.

It’s fair to say that moving MPs across the road to a temporary building in the former Department for Health, as the current plan suggests, is not very exciting. But sometimes, the right option, and by far the cheapest option, is the boring one.

Editor’s note: This is one side of the argument. Stay tuned, and we might just run the other, too...

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.